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Pope's 1st Year Lacks An Ideological Edge

Pope Benedict Waves to Crowd from Balcony
Pope Benedict XVI waves from a balcony of St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican after being elected by the conclave of cardinals. (Reuters) (Reuters Pool Photo)

Breaking with a tradition established by his predecessor, John Paul II, Benedict did not issue an open letter to priests on the Thursday before Easter. That prompted speculation in conservative circles that he would instead issue a "universal indult," or general permission, for the Tridentine Mass.

But Holy Thursday came, and went, with no decree.

"This was one of the things that was expected of Pope Benedict from Day One, and that would be completely in keeping with his writings before he became pope, and why it hasn't happened yet nobody knows," Lawler said.

The reason for Benedict's unexpected mildness, in the view of some scholars and clerics, is that the job changes the man. A stern enforcer of church doctrine in his previous role, Benedict is now shepherd to the world's 1.1 billion Catholics and, therefore, primarily a pastor.

"I'm sure he has surprised some of the very conservative people, but that's because they didn't really know him. They just saw one side of him, which was his responsibility as guardian of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith," said Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, archbishop of Washington.

"I think this Holy Father is a man in the center, and we're seeing that now," the cardinal said.

During his first year as pope, Benedict has reached out to the followers of Marcel Lefebvre, a far-right French bishop who was excommunicated in 1988. But he also invited the left-wing dissident theologian Hans Kung to a cordial private dinner at his summer estate. At a synod of bishops last fall and at the installation of new cardinals in March, the pope allowed frank discussion of such controversial subjects as married priests.

"Benedict, at the one-year mark, has been far more open to dialogue than expected . . . and more open than the Wojtyla papacy was," said Bellitto, the Kean University historian, referring to John Paul II.

The Rev. James Martin, associate editor of America, a liberal Jesuit magazine, said the biggest surprise so far is the encyclical, titled Deus Caritas Est in Latin, which came out at Christmas. Rather than a condemnation of sexual sins, it was a meditation on love and an exhortation to charity.

"It was not doctrinal. It was not legalistic. It was completely accessible to an ordinary reader -- and it really had a lot of conservatives and liberals scratching their heads," Martin said.

In contrast, the instruction on homosexuality issued in November by the Congregation for Catholic Education, the Vatican department in charge of seminaries, was the kind of document all sides had expected. To Martin, it helped clarify what is changing, and what is not.

"He sees himself as a pastor -- not the enforcer any longer -- but he still believes what he believed when he was in the enforcer role," Martin said.

Although conservatives welcomed the document, they have complained that some bishops are interpreting it to mean that candidates for the priesthood must be psychologically mature, not that they must be heterosexual. In a February essay, Neuhaus warned that unless there is a "decisive response" from Benedict against this "definitial slicing and dicing" by bishops, "it is more than possible that the effective leadership of this pontificate, now just getting underway, will be gravely weakened."

The Rev. Joseph Fessio, a former student of Benedict's and the publisher of his books in English, said he understands the impatience among fellow conservatives for a more active papacy but is not worried because "it's early yet."

When the encyclical on love appeared, "a lot of people said it wasn't the condemnation we expected, it was very open to others. That's true. He talks about the love of Eros. Here's the 'Panzer Cardinal' talking about erotic love!" he said.

But, Fessio noted, the encyclical also says that when erotic love is purified, it leads to exclusiveness and permanence. "And what does that mean? He's saying that that kind of love is only between a man and a woman, so he's rejecting homosexual unions. And he said it's exclusive and permanent, so he's excluding divorce and promiscuity."

"So on the surface it was non-controversial -- but underneath he was laying the groundwork, the principles, for conclusions that are controversial," Fessio said, adding: "I think this second year is going to be the one to look it."

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